Friday, August 29, 2014

Ninja Mutants: An Extended Review -- Part Three: A Cultural Phenomenon

Does it come as a surprise that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started out as a joke? I bet it doesn't to some of you. I think the joke was aimed mostly at Frank Miller, since much of the concept was based off of Daredevil, which Miller was doing at the time, and Ronin, which was Frank Miller's. There are other influences, but, really, those seem to be the biggest. The whole Foot Clan thing was a play on Miller's The Hand, which he created for Daredevil.

I thought it was a joke but not a particularly funny one. I had just started collecting comics seriously around the time TMNT first came out, not that anyone really heard about it at the time, since the first issue had a print run of only around 3200 copies. As Peter Laird said, "It was a goof." It was, they thought, a one-off. A gag. The evidence of that can be seen in that they, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, published it as an oversize issue, larger (much) than the standard comic book.
TMNT #1 is currently valued at around $4000.

But the first issue sold out, which lead to a second issue... and a third... Within a year, the Turtles, the gag, had become something so much bigger than Eastman and Laird could ever had imagined. It had taken over their lives. Three years after the debut in 1984, the Turtles were on TV, and Eastman and Laird were busy trying to run a multi-million dollar company, something neither of them had ever dreamed of. Or were exactly happy with. Laird quit drawing, the one thing that had always been a source of happiness for him. Eventually, Eastman sold his rights in the company because he wanted to do things not related to the Turtles.

That's an interesting irony, that Eastman sold his share, because he's the one that has ended up keeping his fingers in the Turtles pie, so to speak, although it's Laird that owns the company and all of that.

By the end of the 80s, the Turtles had become a thing. A rather big thing, in fact, spawning all sorts of copycat titles about things like Radioactive Hamsters and who knows what else. I was busy trying to avoid them. All of them. Rather unsuccessfully since I did a lot of working with kids during the summers. The Turtles were everywhere!

But I didn't have my first real encounter with them until my freshman year of college. I was doing a lot of painting miniatures for money at the time
and someone approached me with a request to paint a set of Turtles miniatures. [I wish I had pictures of those, but, alas, I do not.] They were pretty cool, actually, and it was $$$, so I took the job. Which required research. No, seriously! I had to know how to paint the various characters, not all of which were the Turtles. The miniatures were based off the original comics and had figures I was unfamiliar with. Even April was unfamiliar since, originally, she was a lab assistant (to an Evil Genius), not a reporter.

Which is kind of the point. Eastman and Laird didn't have any plans for the Turtles when they created that first issue of the comic series. When it took off, they made stuff up as the went, just trying to keep up with demand (and failing). What happened was that the Turtles underwent many, let's say, "creative re-boots." When they licensed them out in the mid-80s for the cartoon series, the origin was re-done and April became a reporter. When the work became (quickly) too much for Eastman and Laird to keep up with, they allowed other creators to put their own spin on the Turtles which resulted in many alternate stories and ideas (like one with the Turtles set in medieval Japan). They even had to bring in another creative team at one point to do a completely separate series just to fill in the gaps in the continuity of their own series.

The end result of all of this is that any time the Turtles have changed formats, they have been re-imagined. There is no definitive origin for them, not any more. Maybe not ever. Probably, though, the one most people are familiar with is what came out of the hugely popular cartoon, the one I thought was too dumb to sit through. [I'm just glad my kids have never wanted to watch it!]  In fact, most of the negative reaction to the current Bay movie is that the movie owes more to the comic books than it does to the 80s TV show. Perhaps that's why it didn't bother me. The movie, despite having 6' tall, talking turtles, is not cartoonish, and I liked that.

The important thing, though, is something that began as a joke 30 years ago is still here. And not just still here like it's over moldering in some corner somewhere; it's still a pop culture force. I have to say, that first issue, which I did finally read, was pretty brilliant. All of the early issues were. It was a great parody of comics, the same container of radioactive goo that created Daredevil also giving rise to Splinter and the Turtles. It wasn't quite as silly as I thought it was, after all. Okay, the cartoon was silly, but that comic series was... well, it was something new.

Obviously, people liked it, because the Turtles are still here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

An Exploration in Fantasy -- Part Five: The Source (an IWM post)

Imagine you're a kid. Your father is a landowner and a knight. Your older brother is obviously being groomed as the heir, which is normal and natural. He is, actually, a knight in his own right. You, however, are not being trained as a second, a backup, which would also be normal and natural. You're being trained to take care of horses and muck stalls and do the upkeep on your brother's gear, but that's about it. Sure, you'll get to be a squire, but you can tell there's some... difference; you're just not sure what it is. Clearly, your father loves you, and it's not a matter of favoritism; your brother is held just as accountable for wrongs as you are. But there is something... something that sets you apart. Or is that just wishful thinking?

This tournament comes up, and your brother is going to take part. He's even one of the favored knights. But something happens. The morning of the tournament, there's a problem with your brother's sword. He's livid. Stomping around. He demands that you find him a new one. And that's where everything changes...

* * *

Raise your hand if you know where this is going.

Raise your hand if you knew you were going to have to jump over to Indie Writers Monthly to read the rest of this. Now, go!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Kids' Clothes Were Never This Cool

Have you seen the clothes they make for kids these days? They're amazing. Kids' clothes were never this cool when I was a kid. It was all like tiny grownup clothes. I mean, they didn't even have Star Wars t-shirts! Well, okay, they did, but it was only every once in a while. And they were made with those big iron decals, basically, so, once you wore it about three times, the image was all cracked and peeling off. Well, not when you wore it; once it was washed a few times, it looked like it really came from a long time ago from a galaxy far, far away. Of course, the answer to that was to never wash it. Right?

One of my friends... Hold on; let me really emphasize that: ONE of my friends had a Star Wars shirt with R2 and C-3PO on it. He was the envy of every boy in our class. I was in my 20s before I had my own Star Wars t-shirt. Unless you count Underoos. Yeah, that was about as cool as it got when I was a kid. You could get underwear with stuff on it but not actual clothes. I had the Boba Fett Underoos
which were cool if you wanted to run around the house pretending to be Boba Fett (a Boba Fett with no pants), but you couldn't really wear the shirt out in public without every other person asking you what was on your shirt. Saying "a chest plate" really didn't help. Yes, I know.
I also had the Yoda Underoos
which were better, because you could wear that shirt out in public. Even if someone didn't know who he was, you could just say, "He's Yoda. He's from Star Wars."

When I was a kid, you couldn't even get band t-shirts (not that I wanted any) unless you actually went to the concert and bought them! It wasn't really until the late 80s and U2 that you could actually go to a store and buy a band t-shirt. Other than Spencer's, I mean. You could get that stuff in there, but I wasn't allowed in that place. Regular department stores and clothing stores had regular clothes, and that was it. Cool was not allowed.

All of that has changed now. Pop culture is everywhere. Any brand of cool you can think of, you can find. And you can find it virtually anywhere.

So, yeah, I've been back-to-school shopping with my kids, and it's always envy-making. Well, clothes shopping in general with my kids is envy-making. Even with my daughter. Not that I want all the pink, sparkly stuff she has, but they have cool Star Wars clothes for her, too! She's got the one shirt with... wait, I'll show you!
I love that shirt! And she even picked it out. I'm not sure what that says about how she thinks about me, but I don't think I really care. And clothes shopping with my daughter always makes my wife depressed. She's always, "I want one of those," or, "I want those colors," but they don't make that kind of stuff for adults.

I just have to say: These days, kids have it good.

And it's not just with clothes; it's with books, too. When I was in middle school, there were no books being written for kids my age. Or, well, there were, but they were all romances aimed at girls. The "YA" section (or whatever they called it then) didn't even get a full-sized bookcase. The entire section was located on one side of a bookcase that was only waist high. And it was all romance like Sweet Valley High, which had just come out. Things like The Chronicles of Narnia were stocked in the sci-fi/fantasy section because Harry Potter was still more than a decade away and the idea that you could actually write mature(ish) books aimed at teens and young teens was still a foreign concept.

I'm not even going to talk about Lego. Because, oh my gosh, THAT is just so unfair.

Anyway...
Kids have it good. And they don't appreciate it.
But, then, what kids ever do?

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (a book review post)

My first ever oral book report was on A Swiftly Tilting Planet. I chose it because I had so much enjoyed the book. And, hey, it had a flying unicorn. I got an A on the written report; I didn't do so well on the oral presentation. I never let that happen again, though. It was what you call "a learning experience."

Three books into reading (and re-reading) L'Engle's Time Quintent and I'm finally realizing what it is, exactly, that I don't like about them. The characters don't do anything. They spend their time being taken from place to place by various cosmic beings because they're so important but, in the end, they don't actually do anything to affect the outcome of the story. The closest we get to anyone doing anything is Meg in A Wrinkle in Time in which she says the magic words of "I love you" to her brother to break the spell he's under. A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the worst offender so far.

There will be spoilers.

The world is on the brink of a nuclear war and Charles Wallace is tasked to stop it. He has one day to do it. One day to figure out how to get the madman who is about to start the war to change his mind and not. A madman who is on a completely different continent.

Luckily for Charles, a unicorn shows up to help him and his sister's mother-in-law gives him a magical poem to say. L'Engle relies a lot on magic words in these books. Just say the magic words at just the right time and the day is saved! That's what happens in Wrinkle, and that's what happens in this book. Every time anything bad is happening, the poem is recited and everything is better.

But let's get back to Charles and the unicorn. The unicorn, as it turns out, has wings that come out of his sides. When Gaudior, the unicorn, is just standing around, he has no wings. It's probably a personal bias, but the whole thing with the wings just seems silly to me. The unicorn, by the way, uses his wings, mostly, to fly through time; he's no good at flying through space, according to him.

To stop the madman, the unicorn takes Charles travelling through time. Now, you'd think that would be because Charles is supposed to change something to stop the madman, but, no, actually, Charles is just there to go "Within" different characters and observe. Maybe he'll learn something with which he can stop the crazy dude from blowing up the world. So that's what we spend the book doing, travelling through time learning the history of Crazy Dude's family.

Now, the special, magic poem has been in the family for ages (Meg's mother-in-law is from the same family), so, mostly, we just watch people get into bad situations and recite the poem to fix everything. But, evidently, nuclear war is too big for a poem. We travel along until we get to the father of the madman. What we learn along the way is that he has the wrong father. Or grandfather? At any rate, the wrong man married the woman and, so, we get a madman that wants to blow up the world.

It turns out that the wrong man married her, because he killed the other guy. The two men were fighting over the woman, and the bad guy stabbed the good guy and threw his body off a cliff. Charles Wallace ends up in the same time as the two guys who will fight over the woman, but is he put in a place to affect any kind of change over the outcome? No. He's put into a guy thousands of miles away. A guy who is dying of, probably, tuberculosis.

So, when it comes to the point of the fight, the guy that Charles is in is in the middle of a fevered sleep, and Charles, making his first effort to affect change in the time he's in, keeps whispering in the guy's head, "Do something." The thing is, there's no way for either of them to know that the fight on the cliff is happening at that moment; they just do. But the sick guy can't wake up and they're thousands of miles away, so they do absolutely nothing. But the outcome of the fight changes anyway. The good guy turns to find the guy trying to stab him, knocks the knife out of his hand, and the bad guy, in an effort to catch his knife, falls off the cliff. So the good guy marries the woman, and the madman is never born.

Of course, when Charles Wallace gets back, no one knows anything about the imminent nuclear war. Only he (and Meg, a bit) can remember what almost happened.

Needless to say, I was very dissatisfied with the ending of the book. Actually, I was dissatisfied with most of the book despite the fact the some of the historical bits are interesting. What the book reminded me of is kids playing on a playground and shouting "magic words" to win their battles against imaginary enemies. So, again, I am left with the impression that these are really kids' books, not like, say, The Chronicles of Narnia at all, books that you can revisit throughout your lifetime.

Except that, well, past Wrinkle, my kids have really struggled to read these. My younger son wasn't able to get past the first couple of chapters of A Wind in the Door despite that he tried twice, and my daughter started Swiftly something like four times and just couldn't get interested in it. Maybe, they're already too old. What I do know is that if I had re-read these before handing them to my kids to read, I wouldn't have bothered to do it. Beyond a few concepts, like the tesseract, I haven't really found anything worthwhile in the books.

[Which isn't going to stop me from finishing the series, because I'm already halfway through book four (and it's even worse).]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ninja Mutants: An Extended Review -- Part Two: The Fantasy Paradigm (an IWM post)

Recently, I went to see the new Ninja Turtles movie with my kids (you can read my review of that here), and there are some things in it that go along with the fantasy "discussion" we're having right now. It's interesting enough that I think it deserves its own post, although I'm not including it in the actual exploring fantasy series. First, let's bring up our list of things that go along with fantasy stories:

1. The protagonist (I'm just going to say "hero" from here on out; it's shorter) is not an adult (and usually male).
2. The hero is an orphan (usually both parents are dead, although there is sometime one (usually the mother)).
3. The hero is "special" in some way.
4. There is a prophecy, generally related to the hero.
5. There is an old mentor of some sort, usually a male. (We recognize this character as "the wizard.")
6. There is a quest of some sort involved that only the hero can complete.
7. There is some kind of descent 
8. The hero has companions who help him on his journey.
9. There is some sort of "dark lord" who can only be defeated by the hero.

10. There's an absence of technology.

The thing of interest to me with this new movie is the protagonist...

And that's where I'll leave you. If you want to know the rest, you'll need to hop over to Indie Writers Monthly. If you've ever been a Turtles fan, even if only when you were a kid, you should hop over there right now! Oh, wait, Turtles to don't "hop." Um... Do a flying, ninja kick over there RIGHT NOW!

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Amazon Slant

As many have said, we live in a very divisive culture. I'm not sure if it's always been this way, but it's certainly that way right now. Left or Right. Black or White. Liberal or Conservative. Right or Wrong. On side or the other with no room for anyone to be in between. No room for ambiguity. No room for indecision. We're just not comfortable with it.

I'm sure that at least some of this attitude has been adopted from the press, since controversy sells. People getting along is not a story; that doesn't happen till they take up sides and start throwing bricks at each other. If you want to sell things, it's a good tactic.

And Amazon knows this.

I don't know how many of you pay attention to the rating systems on the various sites on which you may be rating things, but they are not all the same. In fact, most of them go something like this:
5 -- I loved it!
4 -- I really liked it.
3 -- I liked it.
2 -- I didn't like it.
1 -- I hated it!
Goodreads has a more positive slant on it:
2 -- It was okay.
1 -- I didn't like it.
There's no room for hate there.
Basically, though, most sites offer "like" as the default giving you much more room to rate things positively than negatively. If you're paying attention. What this means is that most sites have a "top heavy" rating system that's geared toward generating positive ratings and reviews.

Looking at Goodreads more closely, what we have is a system that is designed to get ratings of 3, 4, and 5. 2s should be virtually non-existent, leaving 1s as the only real option for an actual negative review or rating.

Why do I say 2s should be non-existent? Because most people most of the time do not have an actual "it was okay" reaction to things. They like things or they don't like things. There are very few "I could take it or leave it"s.

Which is what makes Amazon's rating system so interesting. It has that "it was okay" right in the middle.
5 -- I love it
4 -- I like it
3 -- It's okay
2 -- I don't like it
1 -- I hate it
So, when you look at Amazon reviews, you get high numbers on both ends and almost non-existent numbers in the middle, because the system is designed that way. It wants to pit the 1s against the 5s, because that's what draws attention to products.

As someone who does a fair amount of reviews on Amazon, I have seen a lot of this confrontation first hand. For instance, there is a strong group of Marvel-haters out there. So, if a post a review for a Marvel movie, it is sure to immediately get "unhelpful" votes (my review for Guardians of the Galaxy didn't receive the normal deluge of negative votes when I posted, although, still, the first vote was negative).

What it boils down to is that Amazon doesn't want ambiguous ratings or reviews. Amazon wants "I loved this!" or "I hated this!" When you can shrug your shoulders and say, "Well, it was okay, I guess," no one is going to want to take a look at the product. Whatever the product. I love or a hate, though, will get some attention.

And what's my point with all of this?
The first thing is this: When you're rating things, make sure you pay attention to the rating system you're using. Just to give you an example, I was rating/reviewing some things recently, and I was on Goodreads leaving my stuff there. The particular story I was dealing with got a 3 on Goodreads because "I liked it." When I switched over to Amazon, I was sort of on autopilot, and I gave the story a 3 there, too, which was not accurate. On Amazon, I needed to leave a 4. It was a couple of days before I noticed what I'd done and went back and fixed it. It's just something to be aware of.

The other thing is... well, I'm not sure. I mean, I am sure, but I'm not sure (I'd give that a 3). If you're looking at selling things (like books), it seems that a way to do that is to generate some love/hate around it. That's what Amazon seems to think at any rate. And I've seen that work in actual practice. I don't know, exactly, how I would say to go about doing this, but there probably are ways. For one thing, though, as authors, it may not be in our best interests to be getting all upset about reviews on the negative end of the spectrum. I mean, it's never in our best interest to act out over negative reviews, but it might be even more than that. I think the real key is to learn how to exploit the reviews on either end of the rating scale and make them work in our favor. I'm just not sure how, yet.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Ninja Mutants: An Extended Review -- Part One: The Bay Movie

The new Bay Ninja Turtle movie is one of those that I could hardly avoid seeing. For one thing, my daughter has been dying to see it ever since she first saw the trailer for it. Yes, you heard me right: my daughter. Which is not to say that my son (the younger one) didn't want to see it, but it was much more passive with him. You know, sure, he'd like to see it but, if he didn't get to, it wasn't gonna kill him. Not just did my daughter have to see it, but she had to see it ON OPENING DAY! OR ELSE!

So we went to see it on opening day. It wasn't the first showing, but I'm here writing this, so it must have been close enough to it to keep me alive. For now.

Added to all of that with my daughter, I like the Turtles. The original comic series was pretty brilliant, and the first movie (1990) was so well done it sealed my fate as a fan. That said, I never liked the original animated series. I was more than a few years too old for that when it came out, and "silly" was probably the best description I ever had for it. Needless to say, the Turtles have undergone many changes and interpretations over the years, so I'm not going to try to compare this to any previous incarnations. As much as that's possible, at any rate.

There will be spoilers:

As with any Michael Bay movie, the story is the movie's weakest link. If you've seen The Amazing Spider-Man, you might recognize the plot device of releasing a pathogen from a tower on the top of a prominent building in New York City which accompanies a rooftop battle to stop said release of said pathogen. Add to that the rather overused (at this point) plot of having a secret stash of the antidote to the pathogen on hand to charge the unsuspecting populace for and become insanely wealthy and you'll see the lack of thought that went into the story. Even the twist, that the antidote is in the blood of the Turtles and they must be drained to retrieve it, has been done more times than I can count. Or remember.

But, hey, I suppose considering their target audience... actually, I'm not sure what their target audience is since I'm sure they're trying to get the nostalgia audience along with the kids... Oh, well, for a movie more geared toward kids, I'm sure the plot is fine. Mostly, what the movie needs is good, snappy dialogue, and it has that. My daughter loved Michelangelo because he was so funny. Honestly, there were a lot of laughs in the movie, which ought to be the case for a Turtle picture.

And, as in any Bay movie, the action was spectacular.

There's nothing to complain about with the acting, either. Megan Fox was good as April O'Neil, maybe better than good. She really was the part. Will Arnett was great but, then, it's hard not to enjoy Arnett. The voice actors did a great job, especially Tony Shalhoub whom I didn't even recognize during the movie. Possibly the only issue with the acting wasn't actually an acting issue but a casting one: As soon as I saw William Fichtner, I knew he was the bad guy because, well, that's kind of what he does. It's not fun to know who the villain is because of typecasting.

Speaking of the villain, the other villain, Shredder, although he does have the huge rooftop battle with the Turtles, is hardly the bad guy in the movie. He's just this sort of background character who seems to be controlling things, but, other than the fight, he's not really there. That was disappointing. He, as a character, was hardly menacing because of that. The only thing that made him scary was the huge cybernetic armor suit that he had. I mean, really, anyone can have a suit.

The other main issue goes back to the story, and that's having the Turtles start out as April's childhood pets. It's like ever since Tim Burton did that whole "I made you" thing in Batman, everyone has to have everything circle back around and be all connected and stuff. I suppose it's supposed to make it cooler but, really, it doesn't do anything for me other than cause my eyes to roll. Seriously, it's not even voluntary.

Still, as long as you buy into the plausibility of the Turtles, there's nothing really to break the suspension of disbelief. It never goes to "Seriously!? You expect me to buy that?!" Even the big rig scene stayed within the bounds of Ninja Turtles.

Basically, it's a fun movie... if you like the Turtles. Or if you're a kid who is going to end up liking the Turtles after seeing the movie. If you're not a Turtle fan, this one's probably not for you.